Q&A: Bored with bad conferences? It's time to demand more

Calling out the time-wasters.

1 November 2019

Bec Crew

AzmanL/Getty Images

In academia, conferences are unavoidable, and they can often be a disappointing time-sink. A bad conference can suck the life out of any topic, whether it’s astrophysics or synthetic biology, and can leave attendees weighing up the costs of sticking around or walking out.

Duncan Green, senior strategic adviser at Oxfam and professor in practice at the London School of Economics, is a vociferous critic of bad academic and NGO conferences.

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Duncan Green

A lack of respect for the audience and a lack of accountability for the organizers, he says, has resulted in the same problems cropping up: presenters running over time, monotone speed-reading from PowerPoint screens, chairs checking their emails on stage – the list goes on.

“With the occasional exception,” says Green, “my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage.”

Nature Index spoke to Green about how things got so bad, and what needs to change.

What brought on these blog posts calling out poorly run conferences?

DG: I started to get quite resentful of how little effort academia as a system puts into communicating, and how badly it does it. I've had a range of rants over the years. My rule of thumb is, if something is bad and doesn't change, there must be a reason for that.

What’s the best conference you've been to recently?

DG: The best one was organized by the Institute of Development Studies. It almost wasn't a conference. They sent out some ideas and then gave us some tasks. They split us into groups and we got to do some really interesting thinking around a particular state of aid. That sort of task-based thing really works.

When there's plenty of time for networking at conferences, that’s also really effective. But these are things you can do if you can put to one side the performative aspect of conferencing, where researchers are asked to present their papers. For a lot of people – especially early career researchers – this is quite important, but it puts a huge constraint on what organizers can do.

What are the worst conferences you’ve experienced?

DG: I get really angry with keynote speakers who just ignore the topic. I once heard a very eminent economist who had come to a conference on technology, and just talked about climate change, because that's what he wanted to talk about. There's a lack of respect, I think. If you start from a position of respect for the audience, you wouldn't do a lot of these things.

I’d say most conferences these days are suboptimal. If you compare conferences with a one-to-one, sit-down with someone to discuss an issue, or a joint task where you're working together on something practical or specific, a conference is such a sterile format. For me, conferences are one of the least productive formats.

Why do you keep going?

DG: I keep going when I'm invited to speak. And because people tell me, “Oh look at these really interesting people on the list.” I really want to hear what they have to say. Sometimes it's worth it for the occasional moment. I also go for the networking – the coffee breaks, the lunches and the drinks in the evening.

What is your top tip for a conference presenter?

DG: Just keep it to time. And for chairs, it’s astonishing how bad chairing is. Sometimes you see chairs actually checking their emails while they're supposed to be chairing.

A really good chair will transform a session. They'll keep speakers to time, they'll ask probing questions, they'll make sure the Q&A doesn’t drag on, and they'll address the first question to a woman without saying that they're going to address the first question to a woman.

There's a whole bunch of things a good chair needs to do, and that totally changes the dynamic. Chairing should be celebrated and rewarded, rather than seen as a chore.

How can attendees get the most value?

DG: The fault is in the conference, it's not you. So don't think, “Oh I must be too dumb to appreciate this.” Think, “This set is bad, I'm just going to walk out and do something else, because my time is valuable.” Be a discriminating consumer.

You can go into a sort of braindead, passive state at conferences, where you just sit there and stare at these people talking rubbish, but that's not benefiting anyone.

What’s your least practical, good idea for how to fix a conference?

DG: I've got lots, but one is to have a counter above the speakers recording the collective wage of all the people in the room by the minute. Another one is an app that sums up the number of minutes held by men versus women.

What’s one thing that you’ve seen improve in the last 10 years in conferences?

DG: Manels. We're now in a situation where, if people do have a manel, they're really embarrassed. And that's all good, but there are still a few that try to cheat by having a woman chair, which is absolutely banned by the manel pledge. “Hey, let's have a woman facilitating while all the men are talking.”

But they have gotten better. Hats off to the people who really pushed on manels. Now we've got other questions though, like how many of these panels are entirely white? It’s a lot. We’ve got to keep thinking about this kind of stuff.

What do you hope the conference of the future will look like?

DG: My idea would be to do a Trip Advisor-style review app. Respect comes with accountability, so if you actually genuinely respect people coming to conferences, then you would have an accountability mechanism so they can make informed choices.

Some sort of Trip Advisor app for conferences, where you can see what you're going to get, just as you will with a hotel, would be great. That would put pressure on organizers to get their act together.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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